Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The End of the World, as We Imagine It

The following quote from Fred Jameson has been discussed a great deal on the internets as of late, "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination." In some way this statement cannot be disputed, however, I want to stress that the weakness of the imagination, the fact that we must always imagine the end of the world in some specific form, reveals something. In some way it is a matter of what could be called the apocalyptic sublime. The end of the world is too big, it is beyond our capacity to envision, yet that does not keep us from imagining it, representing it, in some finite way, nuclear holocaust, zombie invasion, asteroid, etc. The specific image reveals something of the historical situation from which we imagine. Which is why every generation gets the apocalypse it deserves.

I came to think this after reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Stephen Shaviro has already written an interesting commentary on this book, one that happens to call into question the possibility of producing any interpretation of it. Well, here goes anyway...

First the basic plot, it concerns a father and son making their way south across a barren post-apocalyptic landscape. The specifics of how the world came to an end are vague at best, although, the cold and ashen snow suggests that it takes place during a "nuclear winter." However, the book is not situated in the immediate aftermath. This is not the day after. All animal and plant life has ceased to exist, and human beings are left to cannibalism or foraging for canned goods. In some ways the book is almost post-post-apocalyptic; in that it takes place after the dramatic struggle for survival that makes up the plot of most post-apocalyptic stories. When the novel begins even the murderous gangs have begun to die out. This is the end of the end.

What interests me is the way the novel sketches out some sense of the social and political dimensions of this world. For the most part the novel focuses on the relationship between the father and son, which is a fragile bound of love in a world that constantly threatens to destroy it. This bound is set against the threatening cannibalistic gangs, "bad guys" as the boy puts them. Now, at some point in reading this novel I became frustrated with this, despite its enthralling prose. It began to seem reactionary, the family against brutal society. However, I now think that there is more to it than that. At a few points in the novel the characters refer to "good guys," to even "communes." But these are never really depicted or encountered, except almost mystically at the end. (Shaviro alludes to McCarthy's gnosticism, of a salvation that can only come from outside the world.) In some way I think that the novel is gesturing towards the limits of our own imagination. It is easy for us to imagine society collapsing into murderous biker gangs (Hence the central place of The Road Warrior in representations of post-apocalyptic world. Its dominance is an effect not a cause: it is popular because it conforms to our own Hobbesian imaginary.) It is much more difficult, however, to imagine the creation of a new world (the end of capitalism). McCarthy's novel does not try to present this, but rather draws the limits of our ability to imagine it. Perhaps the "communist sublime"?

In a completely different way Idiocracy is also a story of the end of the world. Its premise is a kind of Darwin in reverse, "stupid" people continue to have many kids while the "educated" elites have few. Add to this the "dumbing down" of popular culture, and you have a future in which the slightest act of intelligence, like reading, is considered gay. Now this film clearly stems from the age of George W. Bush and Paris Hilton, and it could be considered the spontaneous ideology of Bush's America. An ideology which states that the one thing wrong with the world is stupidity.

Two things about this film. First, as my friend Hasana points out it is clearly about male stupidity, women are largely absent from this future, a future of monster truck rallies, pornstar presidents, and television shows based on guy getting hit in the testicles with various objects. Second, the movie has to go to great narrative lengths to explain how such a world could be possible. Its question is not the old question posed to communists, "who will clean the toilets," but rather "who will keep the cars running." It begs the question of minimal competence, not untranscendable toil. The film solves this problem by depicting a society in which everything is either automated, like the touch screen keypads at the hospital, making a diagnosis no more complicated than ordering a Big Mac, or in crisis, like the system of agriculture. In doing so the film stretches to the absurd suggesting, albeit obliquely, that stupidity is not a sufficient cause to destroy the world. In other words, while the world may appear to be stupid, that is only because the intelligence has become automated, placed in various machines, human and inhuman.

Finally, I should add that the film is completely oblivious to the existence of class. This is the main way in which its imagination of the end is circumscribed by the existing historical moment. It posits stupidity as an entirely natural phenomenon. It sees it as a cause, not an effect. It fails to see stupidity as a product of capitalism, as Marx writes, “It replaces labor by machines—but some of the workers it throws back into a barbarous type of labor, and the other workers it turns into machines. It produces intelligence—but for the worker idiocy, cretinism.” Having said that I did not hate the film. That one line, "You like money too?" Hil-a-rious.

Friday, January 05, 2007

All Sins Paid in Full: The Morality of a Weatherman

The northeast is currently experiencing unseasonably warm weather. It is delightful if you do not think of polar bears drowning, and the ecological catastrophe it would seem to portend. This evening exhaustion and a strange headache left me in front of the TV during the nightly round of infotainment that some call news. I happened to catch the local weather forecast, which ended with a discussion of an impending cold front. The weatherperson, I mean meteorologist, stated that colder temperatures were imminent, that soon "we would pay for this nice weather."

This happens a lot on local weather forecasts. (In fact my brother pointed this out to me, and since does not have a blog it is my minimally insightful observation now). Weather forecasting is often a matter of subjecting the weather to a moral economy of debt and cost. "After all of this rain, we are due some sun..." "We are paying for those warm days" etc. Suffering is rewarded with sun and warm weather, and, in turn, every nice day must be paid for with a day of rain. To quote Nietzsche, “Fixing prices, setting values, working out equivalents, exchanging—this preoccupied man’s first thoughts to such a degree that in a certain sense it constitutes thought.” Or, to turn to Spinoza, the weather is not just predicted, or explained according to a series of causes, the high fronts and approaching low pressure systems of meteorology, but subject to a narrative of final causes, of purposes subordinated to our all too human goals and desires.

Thus, the weather forecast could be taken as an allegory for the "news" itself, it is not so much that events have to be explained, or predicted, according to their causes, but narrated according to their ends. Good actions (and countries) must be rewarded and bad ones punished.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Help Wanted: Fragments of a Theory of the Missing Worker

The figure of the worker has disappeared from politics. It has disappeared from the left, which has replaced it with an increasingly fragmented and fractious series of identities, and from the right, which has proclaimed everyone an entrepreneur, even if it is only of their own human capital. Moreover, as politics gravitates towards “the center,” towards consensus, the only class that dares to speak its name is the middle-class, which is absolutely ubiquitous because everyone claims to be it.

What interest me is less this fact, than a resurgence of sorts of theoretical perspectives from which to address it. Perhaps the most overt can be found in the work of Alain Badiou, who states quite directly what happens when the worker is excluded from the count. As Badiou writes, "what is counted is the level of the stock market, the Euro, financial investment, competition, and so on: the figure of the worker, on the other hand, counts for nothing.” (For more on this see "The Factory as Event Site" in the journal Prelom, thanks to Infinite Thought for pointing this out.)

There is more to this post, just follow the "Read More" link below.

For Badiou the worker is emblematic of the political process of the "count." The worker is included in society, but not counted. Included in the economic functioning of society without belonging to the official representation of society, the state. The same could be said of immigrants, etc. Thus, for Badiou what is living in Marx is the paradoxical status of the proletariat as “a class that is in civil society but not of civil society.” While what is dead is the entire theoretical edifice that Marx constructed to explain this fact, the theory of the mode of production, class struggle, etc. In short, the critique of political economy. As Badiou writes, “There can be no economic battle against the economy.” This is because political economy, Marxist or otherwise, if based on the fundamental principle of interest. Badiou radically distinguishes this subject, the subject that maintains itself in fidelity to the egalitarian axiom against the subject defined by interest. Behind every “Thermidor,” every attempt to put an end to the political process “there is the idea that an interest lies at the heart of every subjective demand.”

In Les Revolutions du Capitalisme Maurizio Lazzarato has also written about the disappearance of the working class, but in a very different vein. Lazzarato begins from Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between major and minor. It is important to point out that when Deleuze and Guattari first articulated this distinction in Mille Plateaux they did so by referencing at leas polemically a critique of the working class, from the perspectives of the "margins." Lazzarato, however, uses the distinction between major and minor to not so much dispense with the working class as a political subject, but to make a distinction between competing productions of subjectivity within the working class. As Lazzarato argues, worker’s are exploited insofar as they sell their labor to capital, but they are also investors, investors, through pension plans and stock options. As Lazzarato states, following Deleuze and Guattari, the 'working class,’ or those that sell their wage labor, have been incorporated in the capitalist ‘majority’. The majority is not defined numerically but by the way in which a particular form of existence becomes the norm. ‘Majority implies a constant, of expression or content, of expression or content, serving as a standard measure by which to evaluate it.' In the case of capitalism investing becomes the norm of economic participation; for example, the stock market, and not wages, becomes the standard through which the economy is evaluated, regardless of the fact that it does not benefit everyone. Thus, in capitalism ‘Desire of the most disadvantaged creature will invest with all its strength, irrespective of any economic understanding or lack of it, the capitalist social field as a whole.’

More names and concepts could be added to this survey, such as Hardt and Negri's argument that with real subsumption "the working class" becomes coextensive with society, which is a kind of a positive theory of this disappearance. However, I am less interested in charting out all of the responses to this than juxtaposing these different perspectives as the starting point for reflection.